Contemporary Asian Australian Poets
Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey and Michelle Cahill (eds)
Puncher & Wattmann
I must admit to a level of scepticism upon first hearing about the editors’ plan to compile an anthology of Asian-Australian poetry. As a Marxist universalist, I felt troubled by the proposal for yet another defensive – and potentially ghettoising – proclamation of particularism and cultural identity. As a poet, I felt troubled by the possibility of the further fragmentation of a notoriously conflicted poetic milieu along ethno-racial lines, creating yet another unnecessary front in the abundantly unnecessary ‘poetry wars’. And as a reader, I felt that the very last thing I needed to be subjected to was yet another poetry anthology, particularly since I had only recently been subjected to quite a number of mediocre instances of the genre.
I am, therefore, more than relieved that what I’ve been given to read and review is a truly wonderful collection. The sheer range and quality of the poems included in Contemporary Asian Australian Poets is, first and foremost, a testimony to its editors’ diligence and acuity, and it is also a sign of the maturity and accomplishments of contemporary Australian writing. I remain somewhat ambivalent about the anthology’s raison d’être, and, to my mind, the preface does not make a particularly persuasive case for the concept of such an anthology. Does the fact that, as stated in the book’s preface, ‘in the United States, there has already been a host of anthologies featuring American poets of Asian origins’ automatically demand a ‘single collection focussing on Asian Australian writers’?
I believe there exists quite a number of things in the American literary and publishing culture – for example, this or this – which I sincerely hope will never find their way into this land’s literary scene, irrespective of the level of Australians’ supposed penchant for cultural cringing and so on. Nevertheless, I find much of the discussion by individual editors in the this book’s introductory notes – titled ‘Three Perspectives’ – quite fascinating and pertinent. Many poems in this volume do contest, as Adam Aitken writes, ‘seemingly incommensurable categories that structure so much discourse about migrants: race, difference, assimilation or resistance’; many succeed, as Kim Cheng Boey observes, in ‘actively inventing new ways of being Asian and looking at Asia’; and those by female poets included in the anthology address and redress, as Michelle Cahill would have it, the fact that ‘many of these women have remained in the footnotes and peripheries of national canons, including those dedicated exclusively to women’s poetry.’
Among the best poems that unsettle received notions of race and identity are the Singaporean-born, Melbourne-based Carol Chan’s ‘Away’, which narrates the speaker’s father’s fluctuating yearnings apropos of migrating from Singapore to Australia, resulting in him finding ‘himself in Istanbul; city of the world’s / desire, city on seven hills, / one for each abandoned dream.’ Malaysian-born, Adelaide-based Shen also acknowledges the changeable and illusive substance of cultural identity, with a tongue-in-cheek nod to racial stereotypes in the excellent short poem ‘Noodles’, which I’d like to quote in its entirety:
‘Eating noodles,’ mother says,
Putting down her coffee cup.
‘… the only thing Chinese about you.’
I look up from the steaming
bowl of noodles, eyes half-slit
at dawn. Too tired to argue,
I slip into old habits;
an inscrutable smile
and a filial, obedient nod.
One poet who seems far from tired to argue about his presumed identity is the Sydney-born Paul Dawson who, in the voice of the speaker of ‘from Thanks for the Poems, Pauline Hanson’, expresses his outrage at witnessing the racist behaviour of a neo-Nazi thug on a Sydney train. Anger soon gives way to fantasies of physical violence–‘I’m ready / To cut my fingers on [the racist’s] teeth, to feel his nose crunch / Under my knuckles’ and so on – amid an intriguing admission. It seems what enrages the speaker is not racist thuggery as such but the fact that the racist is claiming Australia as only his – and white peoples’ – country; and yet the speaker too feels that Australia is his country: ‘I’m ready / To get a knife stuck in my gut / for MY COUNTRY, not his’.
Dawson’s is one of the more vocal pieces in a collection of mostly subtle and very well-written poems that are, in many instances, consonant with the aesthetics of what is written by a majority of these poets’ non-Asian-Australian peers. The sublimation of ‘another faded love’ in a maritime image in Sri Lankan-born, Perth-based Sunil Govinnage’s melancholic ‘Fremantle Beach’ may be viewed as a transnational trope of loss and dislocation, but it could also be seen as a meditation on lost love. Debbie Lim, a Sydney-born poet of Chinese background, may deal with specifically Chinese themes in some of her poems – for example, ‘How to Grow Feet of Golden Lotus’ – but her poem ‘Whale’ is very much in keeping with the semantically alert yet lyrical mode of personal observation practiced by many across much of contemporary Australian poetry:
After you came back from the hospital
and I made you a cup of tea,
you told me at the kitchen table
about the whale that came in your dreams.
How in those moments of near sleep
at the end of a day’s continent
it would appear: a single fluke, that pale spume –
the body rising up
to claim you.
I find this poem quite effective and moving in its depiction of the speaker’s attentiveness to the emotional state of her addressee, irrespective of what may or may not be discernibly Asian-Australian about it. In final consideration, the strength of this anthology comes from its inclusion of poems that engage with the topics of culture, identity and belonging from uniquely Asian-Australian prisms, alongside pieces that are simply very good poems. One must also commend the editors for including both established and emerging poets in what is, to my mind, one of the most compelling poetry anthologies published in Australia.